The Piano Buyers Guide - Insiders Guide to Buying a Piano
By Eben Goresko, Registered Piano Technician
By Eben Goresko, Registered Piano Technician and Pianist

Insiders' Guide to Buying a Piano:
The 8 Keys to Getting the Best Value for Your Money

I have been passionate about pianos for as long as I can remember. Over the years of working on pianos (I've been a registered piano technician and a performing pianist for over 25 years) and in talking with my customers I've seen over and over

A Retailer to Check Out
A Dealer I highly recommend is
Joe Woods, owner of
Woods Piano Company

again that buying a quality piano can be a challenging and daunting task. So I've finally decided to put together this Piano Buying Guide - to share with you the essential keys I've learned over the years to make sure you buy a quality instrument that will bring you pleasure for a lifetime.

An Introduction to Buying a Piano - You Get What You Pay For

Never get a piano simply because it is cheap or free. In the absence of an accurate appraisal, you may succeed at first with an inexpensive front end acquisition that soon after turns into a rear end headache. I have seen too many people under such circumstances giving up on their excitement and enthusiasm  towards  playing the piano simply because they made a poor buying choice. You should consider the purchase of your next piano to be a major  acquisition that requires careful consideration. As with most major purchases, you do get what you pay for. If you want to buy a piano that will work well and last for many years, you should to expect to pay at minimum $3,500 to 5000 for an entry level console/studio piano and $10,000 to 12,000 or so if you are looking for an entry level grand piano. Of course you can expect to pay a lot more if you are looking to get a more precious brand like Steinway, Bosendorfer or Sauter but this gives you a basic range to start with. If you see a new piano for less than this, chances are that it just won't measure up to your needs over time.

A Piano's Design Is the Blueprint for What a Piano Will Be

Pianos are still essentially an old world technology. Bottom line - the sound quality, playability and durability of a piano begins with the following three factors. Its design, materials and the craftsmanship in assembling it. On the outside pianos can look to be very similar. But there are many intricacies that go into constructing a piano that affects how it plays and sounds. Some of these include scaling, action design, and the tension resonant structure (the soundboard, the pin block, plate, and rim or back of the piano).

I know that this area can get kind of technical, so I want to give you some easy guidelines on picking the right design for the kind of use you intend for your piano. Generally speaking, it is always optimal, if you have the resources, to go for a grand piano. Grand pianos just have a superior design over an upright and the action and sound is just better. But if you don't have the space or don't want to spend the money for a grand piano, then you should look for a larger upright (a studio to a full size upright). Consoles can be ok if you are a beginner or beginning intermediate player. But if you want an instrument with more sound and resonance a full or studio upright is something you should consider. I would generally recommend staying away from spinet style uprights - they just don't have the action or sound that will measure up to any type of players' needs.

The Quality of The Materials Make the Piano

After the design, the next key component of a piano is the quality of the materials. What are the materials used in a piano? Pianos are 80% wood, and the rest is made up of felts and metals (cast and iron frames). What type and quality of wood is used in the different parts of the piano, whether the wood was kiln dried, etc, all make can make a difference in the way the piano plays and sounds.

How can you judge the quality of the materials used in a piano. Actually, this is very tricky because you can't really judge the quality of the materials from the look of the piano. All pianos look pretty good new, and even if there were flaws you might have a hard time noticing them.

Since the quality of the materials used in a piano can be so hard to gauge, here's what I generally recommend: your safe if you go with Mason & Hamlin, Steinway, Yamaha, Bluthner, Seiler, Petrof, August Forster. I'm comfortable with these manufacturers, and you can't generally go wrong buying one of these pianos.

Craftsmanship is Another Essential Key That Determines the Quality of the Piano

Craftsmanship breaks down into three categories. There is the craftsmanship of how they build a piano at the factory and delivery to the retailer. Then there is the craftsmanship of the dealer in prepping the piano so the piano will work properly in your home. And then there is the craftsmanship of your tuner/technician who will help you preserve and maintain the quality of the instrument so it will work well for you and sound good over the lifetime of the instrument.

All the piano manufacturers I've mentioned earlier have excellent craftsmanship in their factories and work with certified dealers who they make sure know how to correctly prep their instruments for sale. So it is important to go with an accredited dealer when you are buying your new piano - this insures that your new piano will have the proper craftsmanship when you bring it home.

Why is it so hard to know for sure about pianos?

I restored this 6’2” Mason & Hamlin AA some time ago. Judging by the first photograph, you might conclude that the soundboard was in terrible condition from all the shimming and the discolored appearance. Prior to the disassembly, there were a number of cracks visible from the top as I looked beneath the strings and cast iron plate. So what made me proceed in repairing the soundboard vs. replacing the board? Why restore this piano at all?

Firstly, though the piano was barely playable, I could tell from the sustain of the strings in the bass, tenor, mid-treble and high treble registers when I plucked them, that they sounded good. The sound didn’t just fade in a few seconds. It carried.

Secondly, I checked the contact between the main plank of the sound board and the soundboard ribs to see if there was any problems such as visible separation and movement when I applied upwards pressure on the board in the glue joints between the board and the ribs. Had there been such problems I would have had to weigh the alternatives between glue clamping those joints and the outcome and the possibility that the board should just be replaced. As it turned out, though there were a number of surface cracks, none of the glue joints were compromised.

I also checked for the crown of the board. Crown is a built in concave curvature of the soundboard enabling the board to oppose the downward pressure of the strings. Without this pressure, the tone of the piano would be weak and thin. Fortunately, there was some to be measured which was perhaps a tribute to the patented and legendary Mason & Hamlin Tension Resonator.

Finally and not to be overlooked was the simple fact that this instrument was a Mason & Hamlin AA, circa 1907. Despite the fact that it had been abused, poorly maintained, etc, it had somehow at the age of 80 held up quite well. This particular make and year of Mason & Hamlin made this piano almost a sure bet being without a doubt one of the best pianos ever made! So good that it sits in my living room twenty years later with a 100 year old soundboard that still works and sounds quite good. Could it be improved with a new board? Maybe, but it works fine now as a senior citizen.

The outcome of this job was that though it needed and received a new pin block, the rest of the job outside of the action was primarily cosmetic. With another piano, it could have easily been the other way around.

My point in this case study is that it really requires a fair amount of experience and knowledge to know about any given piano how good it is and how it stacks up with the competition, new or used. And even more confounding is that each and every case is usually different to some extent.

So what is the best rule of thumb for the average person in buying a piano? Always go with the highest quality available to you within what your budget allows! If you can work with a top craftsman like Joe Woods, you might be better of restoring your piano or purchasing a quality name brand piano to restore or buying a pre – owned instrument. All of this translates into working with and listening to experts as much as possible. Who is an expert? You have to look close and to carefully scrutinize their work, their products and their output. All of this can be done; you just have to be looking in the right direction.

The Soundboard - Why is it so important?

What is the soundboard? As we saw just above, it is the amplification mechanism of the piano. For the sound and tone of the piano to be good, one of the things there needs to be is a dimension built into the board called the crown. The best way I can describe it for you is for you to imagine a saucer or a very, very shallow bowl. If you put aside the piano shape of the soundboard, there has to be a slight concave curvature built in the board that opposes the downward force of the piano strings. The soundboard installed into the piano is like the saucer turned up side down. This upward curvature opposes the downward pressure or down bearing of the strings (approximately 1000 pounds).

When a piano soundboard gets old, very often this dimension disappears because of aging and the fact of the strings pressing downwards on the board over the years. This can be one factor that can change the tone and sound of a piano over the years. Another thing to consider is that if a new piano soundboard is not built or installed properly, that the down bearing or lack of bearing or crown might be the cause. This is not the very first place I would look for tone problems and I am not suggesting that you should start questioning the crown or the down bearing at every turn. It is in fact only one of many possible contributors (important) to the tone of the piano.
See our video - Introduction to the piano soundboard; Lesson One

The Pitfalls of Buying Your Piano Online

Recently, people have been purchasing pianos through online piano brokers and through Ebay. I see major problems with this. If a so called broker who calls himself a dealer, is selling pianos to consumers and doesn't have a physical facility or a complete operation with experienced and dedicated people who care about their product and customers, stay away! This is bad news! I will go into this further in a moment. As far as shopping for a piano on Ebay, I have spent some time looking at it and I am still not convinced that it is a reliable way to go, notwithstanding all the evaluation mechanisms that are built into their system.

As I have mentioned above, pianos are old world technology and always will be old world technology because the piano design and mechanism is from the 19th and early 20th century. I am not saying that the technology of producing pianos is exactly the same as was used in the 19th or 20th centuries. In many cases, you have factories in Japan, Korea and now in China that are producing pianos with robots. However, somewhere along the way you need experienced crafts people to iron out the kinks and make sure that everything is working correctly and there are no major screw ups. We assume this has been done in the factory but as I have mentioned above, you need craftspeople associated with and working for established dealers who will make sure that there are no problems with their instruments before they end up in the consumers homes. The process of Tuning, Regulating and Voicing a new piano immediately prior to the sale of the instrument is called Dealer Prep. the more prepping that is performed at the dealership, the better for the end user or customer.

The Last Key - Buying Your Piano From Reputable Dealer, Avoiding Getting Ripped Off

How to find a reputable piano dealer? I get asked this question all the time, and here are a few things to look for in a piano dealer:

  • Store has been in business a number of years
  • A member of the Better Business Bureau. Serious businesses, especially those interested in customer service, join the BBB.
  • The store is a licensed, certified dealer of the particular piano you are interested in. That means they have worked with the piano's manufacturer so they know how to correctly prep the piano for your use.
  • The person you talk with knows the product inside and out, and has personal experience with the product (actually played it and knows the action and sound of the piano and how it compares to other pianos)

A Retailer to Check Out - Woods Piano Company

A dealer that I highly recommend is Joe Woods, of
Woods Piano Company. Joe sells the highest quality pianos (Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Yamaha, Petrof, Seiler, Bluthner, August Forster, etc.), and his store's prepping of these fine instruments is the best you can find anywhere. His reputation as a dealer is simply unparalleled.

He does focus on the higher end acoustic pianos and as with most things, you do get what you pay for. However, due to his special way of doing business, Woods Pianos are of the highest quality, while his pricing is moderate as compared to other dealers selling instruments of a similar caliber.

Woods Piano Company does ship nationwide.
Joe is also great at giving piano buyers service and helpful information.
So if you have an interest in high end quality acoustic pianos, check out Woods Piano Company where they can at least help you sort out what type of instrument might best meet your needs.

In this guide you will find:
See our Introductory Piano Buyers Guide Video!

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